While in graduate school, I worked as a doula for teenage girls at a local pregnancy center. Most, but not all, of these women were first time moms, without a supportive father in the picture—and very often without a supportive family member of any kind. They could come to the agency for parenting classes, health info as well as baby clothes, car seats, etc. My role was to accompany them at the hospital during delivery, to encourage them, and to make sure that they had a voice in their delivery and their stay at the hospital as they welcomed their babies.
This role is by far among the most influential experiences of my adult life, as I was invited into the most intimate and vulnerable moments of a family’s’ early beginning. Culturally-speaking, unless a woman has a sister, there is seldom an opportunity to be invited into this place of welcoming a new child with an expectant mother, as is custom in so much of the world. Comparatively, birth in the U.S. has become an isolated experience—especially for single mothers who are choosing to give life.
I remember the first day I showed up for a meeting with the other doulas at the local pregnancy center. I was excited, nervous and proud to be there after all of my training. The woman at the front desk handed me a clipboard for check in. I grabbed it and began reading through the paperwork.
[Based on the nature of the questions, it was obvious that she thought I was a teen mom.]
Self-conscious about looking young for my role, combined with the indignation of being assumed a pregnant(!), teen, I quickly corrected her and took my “rightful” seat at the table for my meeting.
I have re-visited this encounter often, and with regret.
Of course I could have been mistaken for a teen mom—after all, they were the clients served by this agency. The fact that the receptionist didn’t know me from any other woman at the clinic meant that I was new, not judged. And yet, that was my unfortunate takeaway at the time.
Given a healthy amount of hindsight, I have realized a few things. More than welcoming sweet babies into the world and having a small role in the vulnerable, lonely work of these brave women who choose to deliver their babies in difficult circumstances, I owe these women a debt of gratitude for their genuine (and perhaps even, unintended) education. Allowing themselves to be accompanied by a stranger as they crossed the threshold of familiarity and childhood into and unknown and frightening world of young adulthood as a single mom showed me just how much I had to learn about radical self-sacrifice, love and trust. Sure I was the birth coach they’d been assigned, but these women were without question, my teachers.
Doesn’t this exchange get to the heart of today’s Gospel reading from Luke? Jesus is instructing the Pharisees to get mixed up in a diverse crowd—the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind—‘those who can never repay you.’ This is the exact message Pope Francis has been echoing since 2014 when he first spoke of a Culture of Encounter.
I am slowly learning.
How often do these scenarios Jesus is describing come up for us? You know the ones where we are hosting a dinner party and inviting all kinds of folks we don’t know and might never see again. They’re infrequent. It does remind me of those magnanimous folks who start planning at this time of year, to host the Thanksgiving or Christmas meal for out-of-towners, for college students, foreign exchange students, etc. These are the people with the uncanny knack for gathering folks because it is simply time to gather and we are made for communion with one another.
The daily readings are hinting at the waning of ordinary time, the season of anticipation and preparing to welcome those we might not be expecting. How are you hearing the invitation to see stranger as guest?
Am I seeking a place to gather and be known?
Am I being invited to consider a role as such a host?
What might I be surprised to learn I have in common with those I have separated myself from?
With whom am I already in relationship that is bearing fruits of unexpected grace?